The Great Liao – an impressive exhibition on a forgotten dynasty

This is an impressive exhibition on a nearly forgotten dynasty. It shows fabulous archeological finds. It affords visitors a glimpse of forgotten rulers and the Liao empire.

Perhaps you think Cathay is just another name for China? Like me, you may never have wondered about it? This exhibition explained it derives from a semi-nomadic Mongolian people. They called themselves Kitai or Khitan. Marco Polo knew this name, though by then, their empire had vanished.

20170618 14 Grave frescoes

Frescoes from a burial chamber.

Around 900, a charismatic Kitai leader united the eight tribes. He created a dynasty named after the Liao river. The Liao dynasty carved out an empire covering large chunks of Mongolia, China and other Asian countries.

Maps at the start of this exhibition show the mind-blowing size of their empire. It also shows China, ruled by the Song dynasty, as well as nomads living outside both states. By 1125 infighting and wars with the Jurchen ensured the collapse of the Liao empire.

Once obliterated, the state and its rulers were practically forgotten and mentioned in just a few sources. A few memories survived in languages along the Silk Route. That is: until recent chance finds, archeological excavations, stunning discoveries.

The exhibition shows the Liao used the Silk Route to import luxury goods from as far away as Iran. All exhibits come from excavated graves. They were grave gifts and hint at the deceased’s importance, origins, traditions. The Liao loved luxury items and gold.

Their love for precious artifacts and gold ensured grave robbing started practically the moment the empire collapsed. It were not just graves which were destroyed, but also walls, cities, buildings. The grave robbing and illegal sale of artifacts continues to this day.

This exhibition shows finds from a cluster of graves. Two tombs have been reconstructed to give an impression of what burial chambers looked like. Preserved frescoes are stunning: domes are decorated with astrological signs; 20170618 28 Grave house and white pagodawalls decorated with everyday scenes.

To illustrate traditions of various people, the exhibition also shows  a small wooden burial house. It contained a bed for the body as well as chair and table – and in turn was buried inside a yurt-like grave.

20170618 09 Drinkfles

Traditional flask

For the Liao, though adopting Chinese ways, never forgot their nomadic roots. Lovely ceramic flasks imitate original leather “water bottles”; right up to seams and stitches. Many graves contained horse tacks.

Not our ordinary leather stuff, but decorated with precious metal, jade, bells. Some bells are nearly as large as cow-bells. It made me feel sorry for the horses – and imagine the din!

20170618 24 Princess Chen make up

Princess Chen’s beauty box

A photo shows what the grave of princess Chen and her husband looked like. It contained not just horse tacks, bows and other grave gifts but also her silver beauty box. One of the pots contained black substance – Kohl? Two other pots contained white and red creamy stuff. White day-cream and rouge? Check the frescoes!

The princess – who died aged seventeen – and her husband were wrapped in a kind of silver gauze, wearing gold face masks. Her mask is used as the exhibition’s icon. Grave gifts also included silver riding boots, crowns – all they would have needed in after-life. Even Go-pieces were found.

20170618 23 Go pieces

Go pieces

I was so fascinated by everything, my visit took up all my time, leaving none to explore the rest of the Drents Museum in Assen. Exhibition text is in English and Dutch;  exhibition video, audio tour and catalogue are available. The museum plans guided tours in Chinese as well.

The museum is situated in Assen, in Drenthe, a Dutch province. If a visit involves a long journey, why not turn it into a weekend-break? This gives you time to explore the complete museum. In June, the Assen TT races take place, while the province of Drenthe is known for its so-called Hunebedden, chamber tombs, dating from the Neolithic age and related to Dolmen found throughout Europe. The museum shop not only sells “The Great Liao” exhibition catalogue, but also walks and cycling routes along several of the Neolithic remnants.

The Great Liao – a nomadic dynasty, Drents Museum Assen can be visited till the 29th of October 2017.
Chinese introductory video to “The Great Liao” exhibition
Dutch interview video on “The Great Liao”exhibition


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